Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
Throughout the COVID pandemic, reading fiction has played an important role in entertaining, inspiring, informing, and grounding us. As we have done for many years, we recommended to each other our “you-must-read-this” favorites, and we had lots of them. As a result, deciding on only twenty books that the two of us could agree upon for our notable fiction of 2020 list was a challenge.
Before the Ever After. Jacqueline Woodson. (2020). Nancy Paulsen.
Through titled poems in this novel-in-verse, twelve-year-old ZJ, son of legendary football tight end Zachariah Johnson, negotiates a world of hurt, confusion, and loss after his father is diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a debilitating condition caused by repetitive blows to the head. Following his dad’s forced retirement and progressive deterioration, ZJ recalls how his guitar playing stirs his father’s memories. (Gr 6 Up)
Clap When You Land. Elizabeth Acevedo. (2020). HarperTeen.
In alternating free verse, Camino Rios (from the Dominican Republic) and Yahaira Rios (from New York City) tell how they learn they are sisters after the death of the father they adore in a plane crash. Although their differences are many, the girls come together at his funeral in the Dominican Republic and discover that, if they can learn to trust each other, they’ll be able do more than survive an uncertain future. (Gr 9-12)
Echo Mountain. Lauren Wolk. (2020). Dutton.
Twelve-year-old Ellie loves living in the Maine wilderness after her family loses their home in town during the Great Depression. After a tree fells her father, leaving him in a coma, she is blamed for it. An unlikely friendship leads Ellie to the “hag” of Echo Mountain, who teaches her the art of healing, and she finds herself harnessing her courage to save not one, but two lives, unearthing secrets that have stay buried far too long. (Gr 6-8)
Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away. Megan Medina. Illus. by Sonia Sánchez. (2020). Candlewick.
On the last day, when Evelyn Del Rey and her family are moving away, she and her major amiga, número uno best friend, Daniela, find an empty box in which they play imaginative games one last time. As the moving truck rumbles away, they seal promises to keep in touch with sparkly stickers on their cheeks. Digital artwork in bold, warm colors captures this special friendship perfectly. (PreK-Gr 2)
Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story). Daniel Nayeri. (2020). Levine Querido.
In Nayeri’s autobiographical novel, twelve-year old Daniel, in the style of Persian storyteller Scheherazade, weaves a patchwork of tales that he tells his fifth-grade classmates in Edmond, Oklahoma. With a sketchy memory and a lively imagination, Daniel mixes vignettes of childhood in Iran (where his name was Khosrou), experiences as a refugee following his Muslim mother’s conversion to Christianity, and the ongoing confusion of life as an immigrant in the U.S. (Gr 6 Up)
Fighting Words. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. (2020). Dial.
Ten-year-old Della and her sixteen-year-old sister, Suki, escape from their mother’s boyfriend, Clifton, one night. Because Mama has been in prison for five years, they are placed in foster care. The “hard things” leading up to this point in their lives are unveiled, bit by bit. To keep Clifton behind bars, Della and Suki finally accept that they aren’t to blame for his actions and must courageously tell of his abuse. (Gr 6-8)
Hike. Pete Oswald. (2020). Candlewick.
Oswald’s artwork in this almost wordless picture book invites young children to join a father and son on a daylong adventure. They hike forest trails, view wildlife, and plant a conifer seedling (and take a selfie with it) before heading down the mountain. Back home, the pajama-clad pair share a snack of milk and cookies and doze off while looking at the family album with snapshots of earlier generations planting seedlings. (PreK-Gr 2)
If You Come to Earth. Sophie Blackall. (2020). Chronicle.
Young Quinn writes a letter to a potential visitor from Outer Space listing a wealth of things about the geography, languages, flora and fauna, and people of planet Earth. Quinn adds that right now “we are here together on this beautiful planet” and concludes by inviting the visitor to stay in his room. Blackall’s richly detailed ink-and-watercolor illustrations joyfully portray the planet we share. (PreK-Gr 2)
Jacob’s Fantastic Flight. Philip Waechter. Trans. by Elisabeth Lauffer. (2020). Blue Dot Kids.
From infancy, Jacob could fly. On a family vacation to the Mediterranean coast, Jacob opts to fly on his own while his parents travel by plane. The gently humorous text and artwork of this German import details Jacob’s fantastic flight in which he joins a flock of birds flying to Africa and orchestrates the rescue of a tiny bird ensnared by a notorious birdcatcher before meeting up with his parents by the sea. (PreK-Gr 2)
Kent State. Deborah Wiles. (2020). Scholastic.
Wiles’ free verse novel invites readers to join in a conversation about the four days of anti-Vietnam protest on the Kent State University campus in May 1970 in which four students were killed by National Guard troops. The voices of two former Kent State students arguing opposing positions are joined by those of others including National Guard members, students, administrators, townspeople, and government officials. Well-researched and timely. (Gr 9 Up)
King and the Dragonflies. Kacen Callender. (2020). Scholastic.
Black twelve-year-old Kingston grieves after the unexpected death of his older brother, Khalid, believing he has returned to the bayou as a dragonfly. Khalid had earlier admonished King to stay away from childhood friend Sandy, a gay, white boy, who was being physically abused by his father, the sheriff. Initially shunning Sandy, King later helps him hide. After the boys’ reunion turns into something more than friendship, King must reconcile his dead brother’s homophobic feelings against the reality of his own life. (Gr 6-8)
Leaving Lymon (Finding Langston Trilogy #2). Lesa Cline-Ransome. (2020). Holiday House. (Gr 3 Up)
In 1946, Lymon, raised by his grandparents in Mississippi, is sent to Chicago to live with his mother after Grandpops, who taught him to play the guitar, dies. After stealing from his abusive stepfather, Lymon is placed in a boys’ home where he meets someone who transforms his life through re-introducing him to music. Being Clem, the final book of this engaging trilogy, which began with Finding Langston (2018), will be published in August 2021. (Gr 3 Up)
The List of Things That Will Not Change. Rebecca Stead. (2020). Wendy Lamb.
When eight-year-old Bea’s parents divorce, they give her a notebook with a list of things that will not change. At the top is that her parents will always love her and that they are still a family but in a different way. At age ten, with a therapist helping her handle her worrying habit, Bea has a lot on her mind now that Dad is marrying his boyfriend. (Gr 6-8)
Our Friend Hedgehog: The Story of Us. Lauren Castillo. (2020). Alfred A. Knopf.
At first there was just Hedgehog and Mutty (a toy dog) living happily all alone on a teeny-tiny island until the Terrible Storm carried off Mutty. As she sets out to find her lost friend, Hedgehog meets Mole, Owl, Beaver, Hen, Chick One and Chick Two, and Annika Mae Flores, a girl new to the neighborhood, who has rescued Mutty. This charming friendship story ends with the promise of more adventures to come. (PreK-Gr 2)
A Polar Bear in the Snow. Mac Barnett. Illus. by Shawn Harris. (2020). Candlewick.
A polar bear awakening in the snow is gradually revealed against a background of textured white paper. Through a simple, lyrical text with the refrain “Where is he going?” and white and gray cut-paper-and-ink illustrations, readers follow his journey across the snow to the sea, shown in shades of turquoise, where he playfully swims. When the illustrations return to white and gray, readers are left to speculate where the polar bear will go next on his Arctic adventure. (PreK-Gr 2)
Skunk and Badger (Skunk and Badger #1). Amy Timberlake. Illus. by Jon Klassen. (2020). Algonquin.
Badger, a rock scientist preoccupied with doing “Important Rock Work,” finds his quiet, orderly routine upset by the arrival of loquacious Skunk, who identifies himself as Badger’s new roommate (thanks to the invitation of Aunt Lulu, the owner of the house). Readers can look forward to more ups and down as a friendship develops between this decidedly odd couple. (Gr 3-5)
Ways to Make Sunshine (Ryan Hart #1). Renée Watson. Illus. by Nina Mata. (2020). Bloomsbury.
Watson’s new middle grade series introduces an African American girl named Ryan (which she explains means “king”), who lives in Portland, Oregon. Living up to her parents’ “Be who we named you to be” is not always easy. In episodic chapters, Ryan finds “ways to make sunshine” as she confronts personal doubts and faces changes in her family and friendships. Book two, Ways to Grow Love, will be published in April. (Gr 3-5)
We Are Not Free. Traci Chee. (2020). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
More than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast were forced into incarceration camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fourteen young people, who grew up together in Japan Town, San Francisco, take turns relating their experiences between 1942 and 1945 through intertwining grim narratives of suspension of civil rights, governmental control, family life violence, and survival in sub-human conditions. An afternote describes how the author’s family history informed her writing of this historical novel. (Gr 6 Up)
We Are Not from Here. Jenny Torres Sanchez. (2020). Philomel.
Running for their lives, teens Pequeña, Pulga, and Chico begin a perilous journey north from their hometown of Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. They walk and walk and jump on and off the network of freight trains known as La Bestia in Mexico with hope that they will reach the Mexican-U.S. border alive. An author’s note provides a context for this painfully realistic and timely narrative of the plight of migrants to the U.S. (Gr 9 Up)
When You Trap a Tiger. Tae Keller. (2020). Random House.
In the summer before seventh grade, Lily travels with her sister and widowed mother to Washington to be with their dying Korean grandmother, Halmoni. On their way there, Lily sees a magical tiger and soon deduces that Halmoni has bottled up sad stories laced with mythology. Lily barters stories with the magical tiger for Halmoni’s healing and learns you must be careful what you ask for. (Gr 6-8)
Nancy Brashear is Professor Emeritus of English from Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, California. Carolyn Angus is former Director of the George G. Stone Center for Children's Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).